Joanna Zylinska

Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene

    4. Evolution

    Fig. 5: Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala 5, 2014
    Fig. 5
    Joanna Zylinska, Topia daedala 5, 2014

    This chapter provides some further historical and intellectual context for the ethical project undertaken in this book. It is through the story of evolution—understood as both narrative and fact, as the unfolding of history as well as the very possibility of history—that the contextualization of minimal ethics will take place in what follows. The problem of context is important, partly because contextualization is something that any pragmatic approach to ethics must embark upon and partly because “there is nothing outside context” (Derrida 1988: 136). [1] This latter statement does not indicate that our minimal ethics will be relativist, as contextualization is simply inevitable. In other words, there can be no ethics that would remain separate from the context in which it operates, even if, or especially if this ethics is to be thought across different scales. This act of pragmatic recognition requires us to abandon any fantasy of speaking about universally applicable truths, values and morals. Such things simply do not exist, and indeed cannot exist—although there are many dispensers of morality who try to persuade us otherwise. Paradoxical as it may sound, a call to consider things across different scales is an attempt to avoid any kind of universalization of ethics, and to acknowledge the limitations of the human worldview. In other words, we must recognize that the human only ever carves out small sections of the universe, a process through which s/he produces ideas and entities. Overcoming the presumption that “man is the measure of all things”, minimal ethics—which we have termed post-anthropocentric, or (after Karen Barad and Rosi Braidotti), posthumanist—will not be “held captive to the distance scale of the human” but will rather remain “attentive to the practices by which scale is produced” (Barad 136). The imperative to engage, materially and conceptually—although inevitably in a way that is restricted by our locatedness in a tiny section of space-time—with scalar processes and effects across the universe is therefore the first condition of minimal ethics. This is precisely what I mean when I say that this ethics needs to be thought on a universal scale, even if it itself will remain decidedly non-universalist.

    One major issue that the question of scale requires us to rethink in our interrogation of human ontology and human history is the differentiation between biology and culture upon which the division between sciences and humanities has been premised. Yet the main source of the problem is not so much the conflation of the cultural with the biological, as explained by Tim Ingold in his article “Beyond Biology and Culture: The Meaning of Evolution in a Relational World”, but rather the reduction of the biological to the genetic, a mode of thinking that still informs modern evolutionary theory. Even though the majority of biologists are wary of the charge of genetic reductionism, they still hold on to the notion of “a complex interaction of ‘biological’ and ‘cultural’ factors, operating in a given environment” (Ingold 2004: 217). What we are faced with here are two sets of ontologically different processes and entities, with biological factors seen as genetically transmitted and cultural ones supposedly transmitted by imitation or social learning. Biology thus ends up being tied to genes after all. [2] The work of critical biologists such as Susan Oyama, Richard Lewontin or Daniel Lehrman has raised some serious questions for the stability of the dichotomy between nature and nurture, “as though these were separate things—genes on the one hand, environment on the other—that then interact to form the organism” (Ingold 2004: 218). Following Lehrman, Ingold points out that any such interactions occur not between genes and environment bur rather between organism and environment, whereby the organism is “the continually changing embodiment of a whole history of previous interactions that have shaped its life course”, while the environment “exists only in relation to the organisms that inhabit it, and embodies a history of interactions with them” (218).

    We are introduced here to a much more processual and relational way of thinking about the world, whereby matter stabilizes into “organisms” which nevertheless always remain entangled with their “environment”. If the process of organismic differentiation is continuous, the organism needs to be seen not as an entity but as multiple processes of entanglement, a temporally unfolding set of relations that keep making and unmaking the topological boundaries. This brings us to a conceptualization of life as “the creative potential of a dynamic field of relationships in which specific beings emerge and take the forms they do, each in relation to the others. In that sense, life is not so much in organisms as organisms in life” (Ingold 2004: 219). Arguably, such a mode of thinking was already at work in Darwin’s early theory of evolution but, in its later incarnations, such as Henry Spencer’s theory of “natural selection” as encapsulated by the concept of the “survival of the fittest” (later evident in the instrumentalism of evolutionary biology), it became translated into a linear force with a set of predesigned tasks to accomplish. Bergson’s 1907 book Creative Evolution was an attempt to counter such a teleological and instrumentalist reading of evolution. The ongoing engagement with Bergsonian thought in contemporary humanities may be seen to be inspired by a desire to recapture that forgotten vitality of life.

    As explained in the previous chapter, Bergson’s argument in Creative Evolution is premised on the critique of the human intellect. Rather than seeing it as a pinnacle of evolutionary development, he positions the intellect as a fossilized product of evolution that is structurally incapable “of presenting the true nature of life, the full meaning of the evolutionary movement in the course of its way”, and thus a regression as much as a progression (xx). Bergson justifies his conclusion by explaining that the intellect deals only with “solids”, temporarily stabilized images and concepts of the world which we take for the latter’s true states and their representations. However, on taking cognizance of them, we are simultaneously overlooking the wider background, or we could say context: that of duration and of life’s continuous unfolding. This is why Bergson encourages us to turn to intuition, a mode of apprehending the world which bridges instinctual actions and reactions with our habits of thought in order to recapture what the intellect has banned us from experiencing. If “matter has a tendency to constitute isolable systems, that can be treated geometrically”, Bergson acknowledges that this is just a tendency, since matter “does not go to the end, and the isolation is never complete” (13). Reconnecting the intellect back to intuition can help us experience the vibrant vitality of matter, its ongoing dynamism and productivity. He goes on to argue that “[t]he universe endures”, which means that by studying the nature of time we shall comprehend that “duration means invention, the creation of forms, the continual elaboration of the absolutely new” (14). It is in this sense that evolution for Bergson is creative rather than pre-planned and mechanistic.

    In the light of the preceding argument with regard to the ongoing duration of the universe, we can see biology and culture as mutually entangled processes that differ in degree, but not in kind, to use Bergsonian terminology. A similar view has been embraced by proponents of the so-called “big history” model, which situates human history along a rather more expansive scale. Simply put, big history is a modern science-based creation story that starts with the Big Bang and ends with its entropic counterpart: the End of the Universe. One of its main proponents, David Christian, explains in his magisterial work, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, that even though there exist some fundamental similarities in the nature of all change in the universe, the task of the big history project is to explain how the rules of change vary at different scales. However, he also goes on to claim that: “Human history is different from cosmological history; but it is not totally different” (7). If evolution occurs across different scales and at different speeds—and if, on a human scale, we call it “culture” or “history”, while on the scale of the geological epochs (e.g. the Pleistocene, the Holocene, the newly posited Anthropocene) we refer to it as “biology”—then the argument about the supposed purposefulness of its unfolding is not really sustainable, especially when we consider multiple evolutionary blind alleys and false starts.

    The latter line of thinking has been developed most powerfully by the Polish author Stanisław Lem, who is best known to English readers as a science fiction writer but who also penned a number of philosophical commentaries on science, technology and evolution—the most accomplished of which is his 1964 treatise on futurology, technology, and science called Summa Technologiae. Serving as a perhaps unwitting counterpoint to the idealism that underpins Bergson’s Creative Evolution with its notion of vital impetus (élan vital), Lem’s Summa offers a much more sober, even ironic view of evolution, one that is rooted in the scientific method and in skepticism. [3] Lem’s investigation into the parallel processes involved in biological and technical evolution, and his exploration of the consequences of such parallelism, provide an important philosophical and empirical foundation for concepts that many humanities scholars use somewhat loosely today, such as “life”, “entanglement” and “relationality”, while also stripping these concepts of any vitalist hubris. For Lem, evolution “just happened”, we might say. This way of thinking is no doubt a blow to anthropocentrism, which positions the human, and human consciousness, as the pinnacle of all creation. For Lem not only did evolution not have any “plan” or “overarching idea” behind its actions, it also seems to have moved in a series of jumps which were full of mistakes, false starts, repetitions, and blind alleys. He argues that any attempt to delineate a straight genealogical line of man would be completely futile, given that attempts to descend to earth and walk on two feet had been made by living beings over and over again in the course of the evolutionary process. As Polish critic and author of many publications on Lem, Jerzy Jarzębski, points out, Lem also draws an important distinction between biological evolution and the evolution of reason, rejecting the assumption that an increase in the latter automatically means improved design capacity. Predating Richard Dawkins’ idea of evolution as a blind watchmaker by over two decades, Lem’s view of evolution is not just non-romantic; it is also rather ironic—as manifested in the closing chapter of Summa, “A Lampoon of Evolution”. Evolution is described there as opportunistic, short-sighted, miserly, extravagant, chaotic, and illogical in its design solutions. Lem writes:

    We know very little about the way in which Evolution makes its “great discoveries”, its revolutions. They do happen: they consist in creating new phyla. It goes without saying that also here evolution proceeds gradually—there is no other way. This is why we can accuse it of complete randomness. Phyla do not develop as a result of adaptations or carefully arranged changes but are a consequence of lots drawn in the evolutionary lottery—except very often, there is no top prize. (341)

    The product of evolution that is of most interest to us—i.e., the human—is seen by Lem as the last relic of nature, which is itself in the process of being transformed beyond recognition by the invasion of technology the human has introduced into his body and environment. There is no mourning of this impending change on Lem’s part though, no attempt to defend nature’s ways and preserve the essential organic unity of the human, since the latter is seen to be both transient and to some extent fictitious.

    And yet, even though none of the entities in the universe are indeed pre-planned or necessary, and even though the human functions as a fictitious point of unity in the non-purposeful unfolding of evolution, one that in time will no doubt will be overcome by other forms of matter’s stabilization, the human’s temporary presence in the duration of things poses him/her with a unique responsibility. It is the nature of this unique human responsibility within evolutionary history that I am particularly interested in exploring in this book. Without rejecting this durational evolutionary framework of varying speeds, I therefore want to signal that we should perhaps remain cautious about presenting too neat an analogy between different temporalities and scales. However, rather than engage in ontological to-ing and fro-ing by trying to either defend an analogy or even contiguity, or postulate an inassimilable difference, between the two types of evolution, and, more broadly, between biology and culture, I want to suggest, yet again, that we turn instead to ethical questions that the debate opens before us. Indeed, the problem with the big history approach is not that it takes us beyond the realm of the human to look at larger scales but rather that that it naturalizes (in a straightforwardly humanist manner) the concept of complexity across cities and cells, with the technological events of human history perceived as planetary events without any deeper socio-political context or significance. Matter does not end up mattering here very much: its only orientation being its inscribed decay, which we as humans must do everything to prevent. Systemic equilibrium, understood in thermodynamic terms as energy conservation, is therefore the goal of the big historical project. “If Big Historians have a philosophy of media and technology, it is an entropic one. They share with politicians and industrialists the belief that what damns us may also save us and so negentropy comes to be figured as sustainability. In the wake of thermodynamics, sustainability has its own three laws: population control, climate change control and environmental equilibrium” (Kember and Zylinska XX). Postulating an “underlying unity” (Christian xxiv) of things, big history shores up the Anthropocene as a cross-scalar scarecrow figure, one that banishes the study of literature, art, sociology, politics, philosophy and economics to the dustbin of human history. The problem with big history is therefore first of all politico-ethical rather than ontological in that it puts forward a set of implicit technicist “fixes” to the Anthropocene, without reflecting on its own embeddedness in the network of human(ist) self-possession and self-interest. Taking seriously Rosi Braidotti’s injunction to exercise “civic responsibility for the role of the academic today” (2013: 10), the chapters that follow will make more use of these old style “humanities” disciplines to come up with a better mode of thinking these political and ethical questions, thus hopefully contributing in a small way towards the development of a post-humanities framework. [4]


    1. “There is nothing outside context” is another possible translation offered by Derrida to his famous statement, il n'y a pas de hors-texte (there is nothing outside the text), which some have mistakenly reduced to just saying that language is all there is. return to text
    2. Ingold argues that this “implied essentialisation of biology as a constant of human being, and of culture as its variable and interactive complement, is not just clumsily imprecise. It is the single major stumbling block that up to now has prevented us from moving towards an understanding of our human selves, and of our place in the living world, that does not endlessly recycle the polarities, paradoxes and prejudices of western thought” (2004: 217). return to text
    3. The material on Lem included in this and the next chapter has been partly reworked from the introduction I wrote to my translation of Summa, “Evolution May Be Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts, But It’s Not All That Great: On Lem’s Summa Technnologiae”, which came out with the University of Minnesota Press in 2013. return to text
    4. In her book The Posthuman Braidotti recognises the importance of defending the legacy of the humanities as an academic discipline, especially in the light of the critique this discipline is currently receiving in the neoliberal political regime. Her agenda for “post-human Humanities”, premised on a radical reinvestment in critical thought and a creative engagement with technology, is outlined in the following terms: “The image of thought implied in the post-anthropocentric definition of the Human goes much further in the deconstruction of the subject, because it stresses radical relationality, that is to say non-unitary identities and multiple allegiances. As this shift occurs in a globalized and conflict-ridden world, it opens up new challenges in terms of both post-secular and post-nationalist perspectives […] Against the prophets of doom, I want to argue that technologically mediated post-anthropocentrism can enlist the resources of bio-genetic codes, as well as telecommunication, new media and information technologies, to the task of renewing the Humanities. Posthuman subjectivity reshapes the identity of humanistic practices, by stressing heteronomy and multi-faceted relationality, instead of autonomy and self-referential disciplinary purity” (2013: 144-45). return to text